By Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, D.D.
On the 25th anniversary of his election as the Successor of Peter, and early in the new millennium St. John Paul II on April 17, 2003 bestowed upon the church the Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. On this day, the church throughout the world was celebrating Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, the institution of the Eucharist, and the foundation for the sacrament of Holy Orders. Instituted at the Last Supper and fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Lord on Easter morning, “the Eucharist stands at the center of the church’s life” from the beginning.
In this document St. John Paul ardently expressed his hopes and dreams for all of the Lord’s disciples in the Catholic Church throughout the world. “I would like to rekindle this Eucharistic ‘amazement’ by the present Encyclical Letter, in continuity with the Jubilee Year in 2000. To contemplate the face of Christ and to contemplate it with Mary, is the “programme” which I have set before the church at the dawn of the new millennium, summoning her to put out into the deep on the sea of history with the enthusiasm of the new evangelization. To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and blood. The church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened. The Eucharist is both a mystery of faith and a mystery of light.”
We recall that in 2002 St. John Paul instituted the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary that begin with Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, and continue with the Wedding at Cana, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration, and culminate with the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” the iconic statement from Lumen Gentium, the document on the church from the Second Vatican Council.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a boundless fountain of new life where each generation of the faithful is called to be renewed in Eucharistic “amazement,” from the Successor of Peter in Rome to communities of faith on all points of the compass in the universal church. In recent months, the raucous rhetoric surrounding the prospective document on the Eucharist from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has misrepresented the goal of the Conference’s strategic plan for renewal in the church in the spirit of St. John Paul’s Apostolic Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The following is an overview of a deliberative process that was well underway independent of any political distortion.
“The 2021-24 USCCB Strategic Plan will guide the Conference during the uniquely challenging times we face as a church and nation. The theme chosen for the 2021-2024 USCCB strategic plan, “Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope” emerged as the result of listening sessions with Bishops, the National Advisory Council and USCCB senior staff who were asked to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the church in the four years ahead. The need for healing and renewal through a reinvigorated focus on the Blessed Sacrament emerged as the theme most commonly discussed and embraced among the groups; as such, it naturally evolved and was adopted as the theme of the 2021-24 USCCB strategic plan that will guide the Conference over the next four years.”
Moreover, the dispersion of the faithful brought about by the pandemic gives even greater impetus to the wisdom of the strategic plan. The extensive dialogue among the bishops at the recent June meeting appears to have righted the ship and the forthcoming document on the Eucharist will align with the strategic plan for 2021-2024.
Worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, or being in the state of grace, has been part of the church’s tradition from the beginning as we read in the words of St. Paul. “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For everyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on themselves.” (1Corinthians 11:27-29)
Obviously, worthiness is a critical element that cannot be dodged because sin and scandal weaken the Body of Christ and compromise the church’s mission in this world. Worthiness and the essential call of the Lord to repentance and conversion are ever ancient and ever new, will be integral in the impending document. For sure, there is a rightful time and place for disciplinary action in the life of the church in every generation, but this publication of the Bishops’ Conference does not have the authority to address personal situations. This is the realm of a particular pastor or bishop.
Coming soon in a church near you, we will have the opportunity this summer to hear, contemplate and celebrate for several weeks the Bread of Life discourse of Jesus from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. In the words of St. John Paul II may the proclamation of these gospel passages, our Lord’s own words, be a source of Eucharistic “amazement” spiritual food to sustain us on the path of life, and the pledge of eternal life.